Josh & Benny Safdie
John Cassavetes’s Shadows. Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. Jim Jarmusch’s Permanent Vacation. Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant. Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets. The greatest—and grittiest—New York films function as heralds, setting the tone for the way we tell stories. They prophesize, through their example, the future of cinema and, in turn, elevate their makers into movie demigods.
Good Time, directed by the brothers Josh and Benny Safdie, is one of those movies. Their story of a small-time crook struggling to get his brother out of jail premiered in Cannes. As a man willing to do (and haplessly screw up) anything and everything to take care of his imperiled and mentally disabled brother (played by Benny Safdie), Robert Pattinson delivers one of the grimiest, most maniacal performances in recent memory as his character, Constantine, burrows into darker and more harrowing scenarios with unsettling persistence and stamina.
According to the Safdies, it is this same persistence, albeit of a less criminal sort, that has been the key to their success-from Josh’s first micro-budget feature, 2008’s The Pleasure of Being Robbed, made when he was just out of Boston University, to their current film starring one of the most recognizable men on the planet. As they tell their hero, the rock god Iggy Pop, who performed vocals on the soundtrack to Good Time, it was their enthusiasm and will that cut through the noise and convinced their collaborators to go along for the ride.
JOSH SAFDIE: What’s up, Iggy!
IGGY POP: Hey, I’m at the beach, getting ready to ship out to L.A. tonight for a show.
JOSH: We’ve been in L.A. the past couple of days.
POP: A question: how did I get the gig with you guys?
JOSH: Well, Dan Lopatin [who composed the score for the film under his pseudonym, Oneohtrix Point Never] … It’s hard for me to say his name.
POP: [laughs] It’s really not that hard.
JOSH: There are certain words in the English language that can only be spoken and not read. When I first saw his name in text, I said, “I’m not going to try to read that. I’m just going to think of it as a sound.” Anyway, it was Dan’s idea. He wrote the piece of music and said, “I think Iggy’s voice, Iggy’s poetry, would be best for this.” But that’s like saying, “I need a house; I’ll just buy a ten-million-dollar home.” No, it’s more than that. It’s like saying, “I’m going to know what the afterlife is like.”
POP: You’re at the age Christ was when he died. Are you having any suicidal thoughts? [all laugh]
JOSH: A lot of my friends gave me Jesus Christ pendants when I turned 33. Every time I make something, I think it’ll be the last thing I do. Every time I talk to someone, I think it’s potentially my last conversation. But having an apocalyptic mind is important—it’s an excuse to be romantic.
POP: Jesus was a writer, too: “Let me tell you about the parable of this,” and, “Don’t do that.” Benny, you’ve got two more years.
BENNY SAFDIE: I have a son who’s a year and a half, and it’s the craziest thing in the entire world. I can’t imagine a suicidal thought at this point.
POP: When I was around that age, I wasn’t able to afford Manhattan, so I moved to Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, where I spent a year in a really goombah neighborhood. On one corner, where the playground was, there was a pizzeria, a police station, and the quaalude dealer.
JOSH: A one-stop shop.
POP: That’s right. Then I played the Brooklyn Zoo, and the locals realized, “My god, that weird guy is a singer.” [all laugh] They came to my apartment later and offered to steal me anything I wanted.
JOSH: On the last film we made, the distributors started to send these fancy cars to pick me up and bring me places, and I went from being the guy who talked about what he did, to the guy who was talked about for what he did. It was an interesting paradigm shift. After one guy saw me in a magazine, and saw me moving my car to avoid the street sweepers—I have a car that’s dubbed the Cucaracha—suddenly he was like, “Hey, we’ll move your car for you in the mornings. You shouldn’t be burdened with that.”
POP: That’s pretty cool!
JOSH: Yeah, but of course, I’d never do it.
POP: You went to Boston University. Did you like it there?
JOSH: I mean, sure. I took a class called Cosmic Evolution, which I loved, and that was what college was all about. It was important to get out of the city. Having grown up in Queens and Manhattan, I wanted to leave the city and experience something else.
POP: There’s no claustrophobia like New York claustrophobia.
BENNY: It’s an island mentality. But as soon I got out of Boston, I came back to New York, to an apartment in Chinatown. I don’t know what possessed me to take that place. They said it was 100 square feet. It was probably 80 square feet. Then my wife graduated from BU and came to live with me in that apartment, and that was the test, the two of us living in, basically, a closet. It was like, “If we can make it here, we can make it go anywhere.”
POP: I’ve got to say, the psychiatrist in Good Time—he’s a real prick. [laughs]
JOSH: In reality, Peter Verby, the actor who plays the psychiatrist, started off as a public defender and now he’s a criminal lawyer. I think it eats away at him. I know him through a cinephile crowd because he used to chill at Kim’s [Video & Music, which closed its last store in 2014] all the time and rent videos. He’s the type of guy who watches boxing matches in movie theaters.
BENNY: And one of the nicest people.
JOSH: Peter actually represented me when I got arrested during the movie [for driving with a suspended license and resisting arrest]. He also represented Buddy Duress, another actor in the film. Buddy, as you can tell in the movie, can get on someone’s nerves. I mean, he’s a beautiful guy and I’m happy to say he’s my friend, but he doesn’t know when to stop himself. I remember seeing Buddy on his phone, pacing around on the street, and he came back and said, “What the fuck is wrong with Peter, man? He told me I was an asshole. He said I wouldn’t shut up.” I was like, “No way! Peter said that? But he’s the nicest guy in the world! What did you do to tick him off?” Then I texted Peter, who replied, “Everything is fine. Buddy’s a handful.” [all laugh]
POP: In the movie, I got the feeling that the most important thing was, “Move ’em through the system.”
JOSH: Yeah, totally. That’s how the system works. And that’s the frustration of the movie, wanting to break free of the bureaucracy. Like, do you believe in the system or not? The psychiatrist believes in it and [Robert Pattinson’s character] Connie does not. That’s the duel taking place.
POP: I always thought it was a love story. Not like, “I love you, bro. I’m going to save you.” But more like, “I love you, bro. I can’t live without you. And if they lock you up somewhere …”
BENNY: They connect on a deep level. Josh and I can relate to that because, throughout our whole lives, the only thing we’ve had was each other. We bounced back and forth between our dad and our mom, and the only constant was us. There were times when we got into crazy fights and didn’t want to see each other, but there are deep, deep connections that we can’t really explain.
JOSH: I think love is the only thing that matters in life. It really is.
POP: I have a friend who happened to be a psychiatrist and he was decent enough. He was a young, longhaired, nice guy with a degree, and he happened to be doing his residency when I needed to get locked up for about a month, and he let me into the neuropsychiatric institute in L.A. in the ’70s. But every once in a while, to fulfill the insurance requirement, we’d sit down and have a psychiatric session. The first question is always: “So, tell me about your father.” [all laugh] So, tell me about your father.
JOSH: Oh, man, I don’t know where to begin.
POP: I feel like I know Ronald Bronstein, the guy who played your dad in your film Daddy Longlegs .
JOSH: Ronnie and I have watched so many interviews and listened to so many tracks of yours, side by side. He’s the co-writer and co-editor of Good Time, too. When we first became friends, I was like, “Listen, Ronnie, I want you to play our dad.” He was offended, like, “Oh, you think I’m fucking old.” [Pop laughs] And then his buddy said to him, “Listen, just think about the canon of father figures in movies and art and literature, think about how important they are. Now think about the fact that these two guys want you to play one of those characters.” He’d never met our dad, but they’ve since had many run-ins—that’s what you have with our father—run-ins when he’s trying to figure out a way to hustle you to do some type of favor for him.
POP: Let me recommend a book to you about another father from Queens. It’s called I Slept With Joey Ramone.
JOSH: Oh, I love that book! By [Ramone’s brother, and the frontman for the punk band the Rattlers] Mickey Leigh?
POP: You know the book?!
JOSH: We grew up not that far from where it takes place. I actually went up to Mickey once and said, “I love the Rattlers, man. And I love your book.”
POP: Is your dad still … How should I put it? Alive and kicking?
BENNY: Yeah. He had us very young.
JOSH: We were describing the situation our dad is in right now to Ronnie, and Ronnie was like, “Oh my god, that would make the most incredible movie!” And it’s like, “Yeah, doesn’t it sound familiar? You played it in, like, 2008.” [laughs]
JOSH: Are you a Sonic Youth fan?
POP: Yes, I am.
JOSH: Okay, well, get this: Originally the characters in that movie were in a different time of their lives. It took place on the beach. It was intended as an adaptation of Odysseus. I scoured New York City trying to find two real brothers who could play us as kids. And one day I was on the phone with Benny and he was like, “It’s not going to happen! We’re never going to find these kids.” And then I looked down and I was like, “Benny, I’ve got to call you back. I’m looking at you at 6 years old right now.” I gave their mother my contact and then she reached out to me later, like, “Hey, you know, I’ve thought about it and I’d like to talk more.” I looked her up and I realized that she was the artist Leah Singer and that her husband is [Sonic Youth’s] Lee Ranaldo. These were Lee Ranaldo’s kids. And then I was like, “These people are involved in art. They know how shitty and evil film is. They’re never going to let us do anything.” [Pop laughs] But it shows you how serendipitous New York can be. You’re attracted to the little souls of two kids—the energy of that whole family—and it turns out that they are rock royalty. Then they had the faith in us to put them through a couple of crazy months of shooting.
POP: I don’t imagine that it’s easy to get the support and confidence of actors, or of the financiers who help you get your films made. What’s your secret?
BENNY: It’s enthusiasm.
JOSH: And pure will. You believe in something, you put in the work. And I think that eventually ends up showing. Enthusiasm is kind of the only thing we’ve got.
POP: There’s a lot of energy in the movies.
JOSH: Iggy, did you know that you pulled me up on stage when I was about 18 years old?
POP: No kidding.
JOSH: I was in the mosh pit and you pulled some of us up for your final song. But earlier, in the pit, I bumped into this guy and realized it was the security guard from Tower Records who, the week prior, accused me of stealing a DVD, which I did. I developed my entire DVD collection by lifting from Tower Records. He was convinced I had a secret-stash pocket, so he took my jacket off and stomped on it in front of me, and he said, “If the DVD is still in there, it’s broken.” So, in the middle of the mosh and the energy, he looks at me and says, “Was the disc in the jacket?” And I said, “No, it was in my Discman.” I would put the DVDs in my CD player and, like, walk out pretending to listen to them. He gave me a hug and we both realized we were in that moment. So you’ve done a lot for me.
POP: [laughs] You met Arielle Holmes [the star of the Safdies’ 2015 film Heaven Knows What] in New York’s diamond district. That’s a unique block.
JOSH: It sure is.
POP: Was she panhandling in a diamond store?
JOSH: No. Our dad was a diamond-district runner there when we were kids. I saw her entering the subway after a long day of basically being undercover in the district, and she just looked like the most beautiful girl in the world. I turned to my producer and said, “I’ve never seen anyone like her before.” And he was like, “Let’s try to get her in the movie. I assumed she was a Russian showroom girl. But the second I talked to her, that perception was shattered. I met up with her for dumplings a week later to keep talking about maybe being in this movie. She was a street kid. And we just became friends. She is one of the most unique thinkers, really an autodidact and a genius.
POP: I was only able to watch Heaven Knows What up to where she goes into the bathroom and takes out the needle. I’ve done that and I don’t want to see it anymore, so I had to cut out. But there’s something childlike and a kind of role-playing among some of the determined drug users, especially in Manhattan. In Detroit, it’d be like, “Hey, I’m a junkie. I’m gonna rip you off and then go home and shoot up and watch TV.” But there wasn’t the role-playing, like everybody dreaming of playing guitar someday. And there’s a poignancy to that, people just sort of going in circles.
JOSH: The circle aspect—that sense of repetition—really stuck with us. Arielle and some of her friends would often voice how frustrating a situation could be. Like, I can’t deal with the repetition, I can’t deal with the repetition.
POP: I can tell you, it goes around and around and around. You know, I’d never seen a Twilight movie. I’d seen Robert Pattinson’s face, and he’s an awfully nice-looking fella. And, Benny, when I saw you in the movie, there was something about your portrayal—I assumed you were the star of the movie, and I thought you were Robert Pattinson. I thought, “What a great thing he’s done. He’s gained some weight and is playing against type.” [Benny laughs] Pattinson plays a real swashbuckling, down-and-dirty Douglas Fairbanks type.
BENNY: I like the Douglas Fairbanks comparison.
POP: The two of you are great together. I worked with [the director] Sam Raimi years and years ago when he was making the Evil Dead films. He has a brother he works with, and they would make decisions while playing catch with a baseball: “Well, okay, we could make her a beautiful young girl.” “Well, we could also kill her off …” I know you had a co-writer, Josh. How does it all work?
JOSH: We all want to turn each other on to stuff that we can lose ourselves in. The best way to do that is by fully imagining something, which might mean going out and filming something and then sharing the clip. Or recording a conversation. Or maybe writing a script. That’s the type of thing that convinces people to really invest the time. Benny and I once walked into a meeting with huge studio execs, and we were like, “What are we going to talk to them about?” We came up with something on the spot. We were like, “We’re going to make this movie about spaceships.” And the execs were like, “Oh, this sounds great.” I was like, “No, you haven’t heard the best part. We could shoot it all here on Earth.” [Pop laughs] “We don’t have to go to outer space. We could do it right here!”
BENNY: That said, somebody out in Hollywood is going to do something where the whole budget is spent on training filmmakers and an actor to be astronauts, and then sending them all to the International Space Station with a camera and a sound kit. Wouldn’t that be so cool?
POP: A Russian would be in a good position to do that, I think.
BENNY: Yeah, they’re the only ones who can get there.
POP: Russia could get the okay from some crazy guy who happens to have an in with Putin or something. [laughs]
JOSH: Benny, we should contact the Russians.
BENNY: We’ll put them on speaker and start throwing the ball at one another.
POP: I’m going to Moscow in October. If I meet the right guy, I’ll pitch it to him. [all laugh] Well, I now know more about you than I did when we started talking. So if it’s cool with you two, I’m going to fuck off.
GOOD TIME IS OUT IN THEATERS NOW. IGGY POP, CO-FOUNDER OF PROTO-PUNK BAND THE STOOGES AND SOLO ARTIST, RELEASED HIS 17TH ALBUM, POST POP DEPRESSION, LAST YEAR.